The only bank that makes it possible for people in Washington state to wire money to relatives in Somalia is ending the service today.
“Yes, Mogadishu. Yes, Somalia. Can I get a receipt?” asks Ayan Mohmed.
She’s just finished listing a string of account numbers and pushed five $20 bills through a plastic window located behind a humming drink case at the Fresh and Green Produce Market in Tukwila.
That receipt confirms that her money, earned as a hairdresser, will make its way to her waiting husband back in Somalia. It’s called “hawala”— Arabic for “transfer.” money transfer operations (or MTOs) like the “Dahabshil” MTO at Fresh and Green work with a counterpart in Somalia who will hand over money to the intended recipient in a matter of hours.
Eventually, the two MTO branches have to settle up accounts, requiring a bank willing to wire money in between the United States and Somalia (or between the United States and an overseas bank that will then transfer to Somalia).
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It’s complicated, but it’s the only legal way to get money to the country — which has no formal banking system and no wire-transfer services like Western Union.
Today, that money-transfer system will collapse completely, at least for Somali Americans in Washington state. Last week, Merchants Bank of California, the last bank still providing this transfer service for MTOs in Washington state announced in a letter (obtained by Oxfam) that it too would end its partnerships with MTOs serving Somalia today.
“It’s just like seeing a famine coming and not being able to do anything,” says Aynab Abdirahman, chairman of the Washington state Refugee Advisory Council. “A lot of people are going to die.”
A 2013 report by Oxfam America, a humanitarian organization working on this issue, estimates that Somali Americans and Somalis in the United States send as much as $215 million each year back to their home country.
According to Jonathan Scanlon at Oxfam America, these remittances are comparable to U.S. government foreign aid, humanitarian assistance and foreign investment to the country.
“It really is the largest and most important financial flow going into Somalia, and most of it goes to families” says Scanlon. “Money going home to help keep kids in school. … Money going home to help out the family business, money going home to just keep food on the table. It really is a lifeline for the country.”
But this lifeline has been under threat for some time. The hawala system has been used by a few as a cover for smuggling funds from the United States to extremist groups like al-Shabab (there was a local case of this last summer). As a result, restrictions on the system have grown. I wrote about this a year-and-a-half ago when Barclays Bank announced it would no longer provide the wire-transfer service between MTOs.
Back then, there were still other banks serving money-transfer operations in the Seattle area, but many in our Somali-American community (one of the largest in the country) were already predicting a chain reaction. And they were right.
For these banks, the difficulty of complying with U.S. anti-terrorism and international banking-transparency regulations makes transferring funds to Somalia too risky.
Merchants Bank didn’t respond to phone calls or emails, but the letter sent to MTOs simply states, “We cannot in good faith meet the obligations [set by the Office of Comptroller of the Currency] given the complexity of your business.” (The Comptroller of the Currency is the federal agency that regulates banks and savings associations.)
Scanlon doesn’t blame the banks. He says they’ve been asked to take on too much risk and that the only hope for keeping the system alive is for that risk to be transferred to the U.S. government, perhaps via one of the Federal Reserve Banks.
The people I spoke with at Fresh and Green agreed that the United States government must step in to help. And there was a palpable rising panic as they calculated the potential loss to out-of-work relatives, aging parents and needy spouses back in Somalia.
“A lot of people are asking me … ‘Are you going to stop? Will we no longer be able to send money?’ ” says Dahabshil operator Abdiraza Mahand Osman in the little fluorescent-lit office on the other side of the plastic window. “I say ‘I can do nothing. Maybe be patient, maybe the American government will do something.’ ”
But in the meantime, he’s planning to be out of work.